How football offers migrants the dream of a better future

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How football offers migrants the dream of a better future
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This World Cup is taking place against a backdrop of heightened tensions around immigration to Europe. PA

The FIFA World Cup in Qatar has already been hit by controversy over human rights and the treatment of migrant workers in the host country. As fans around the world fly to the tournament (and then fly home), it’s worth paying attention to how football and migration are intertwined.

Football is a global game, and migration is an integral part of it. According to a recent report by the International Center for Sports Studies in Switzerland, almost a quarter of professional footballers (around 14,000) are expatriates, traveling thousands of miles from home to play for a team in another country.

This World Cup is taking place against a backdrop of heightened tensions around immigration to Europe. Migration on boats from the Middle East and North Africa region was an important part of this.

More than 800,000 people have reached Italian shores on small boats since 2014. This extremely dangerous journey is a desperate attempt to reach Europe in hopes of achieving safety and a better life. And many believe that the better life they seek can be achieved through football.

I looked for the meaning of football in the lives of migrants on the boat, not in Sicily. Through months of observation on the pitch and interviews with 29 refugees between the ages of 18 and 30, I learned that success as a footballer is what I call a ‘possible dream’. It’s an unlikely goal, but it can give people purpose and something to look forward to, even when they’re going through tough times. As one participant told me:

We come here the same way but we all have different problems. Those who still have family in Africa like me, take care of them. You can play football, but you must have a job. You can seek your opportunity in football, of course, but you need a job.

The players are full of hope

For some migrants in Sicily, constantly marginalized by state immigration policies, the soccer field is a place where they can put aside some of their anxieties about their precarious immigration situation.

In the small town of Aidone, a local organization brings together refugees and Sicilian players, turning them into superstars in the eyes of the kids who watch the team every weekend.

You can also see people playing matches and training in one of the central parks in the Sicilian capital Palermo, hoping to be spotted.

Many people I have spoken to idolize footballers who have ‘succeeded’ in football and then given something back to their communities or country of origin. Young male migrant footballers idolize players like Manchester United’s Sadio Mané or Marcus Rashford, who have combined sporting success with an impact on their community.

Mané, born in Senegal and currently playing at Bayern Munich, recently won FIFA’s first-ever Socrates award in recognition of his charity work. He built a hospital and a high school in Senegal.

One of my research participants now has a career as a professional footballer. He recently returned to his country for the first time since he embarked on the journey by boat many years ago.

He took a photo with his mother, both wearing their team jerseys. In this way, his imagined (and realized) future collided with his past:

When I was nothing, I was with them (my family and my friends). So right now, I’m still with them. My mother always told me to never forget who I am and never forget where you come from and who you are with.

success stories

Although some success stories exist, for most migrant football hopefuls the reality is much harsher. The crossing takes a long time and presents extreme dangers.

According to the International Migration Agency, only 58% of crossings along the central Mediterranean route have been successful over the past year.

Bureaucratic barriers to participation in football may exist upon arrival. In Italy, for example, the process of joining the Italian league and participating in official matches can take a long time, sometimes years.

This echoes the difficulties faced by asylum seekers in finding regular and legal employment in other sectors.

Migration in many forms (permanent or temporary) is a factor in the popularity of football. For the people I spoke to in my research, it has an even deeper meaning.

It is likely that the new right-wing Italian government will toughen immigration policies and barriers for migrants. With only a tiny fraction of aspiring footballers “succeeding” and achieving sustainable livelihoods, their success stories can offer false promise.

When I watch the World Cup, I will think not only of the professional players who have left their homes, but also of my research participants in Sicily.

Caught in the limbo of migration, many of them hope to see themselves in the field one day. I hope football, loved by so many, can include and protect those who are willing to risk everything to pursue their dreams on and off the pitch.Explained How Football Offers Migrants The Dream Of A Better Future

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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